Last of the Just, The

Andre Schwartz-Bart

One of the “classic” novels about the Holocaust, The Last of the Just was first published in France in 1959. An internationally acclaimed bestseller, Schwarz-Bart’s sweeping novel was hailed for its magnificent prose and artistic mastery — and no doubt found a sympathetic Christian audience for its theme as well: the Lamed-Vovniks, the martyred “Just Men” in every generation of the Levy family, are seemingly Christ-like in their acceptance of the role of “suffering servant.” From this perspective, the Jewish people can be seen as a collective Christ-figure, atoning for the world’s sins.

Yet a contemporary reading of this masterful novel reveals it to be a deeply Jewish book. In tracing the generations of the Levy Lamed-Vovniks — fleeing all across Europe during crusades, expulsions, inquisitions, and pogroms, up to the Nazi era — it is clear that Christian “love” and “charity” are responsible for one thousand years of Jewish suffering. Moreover, the Lamed-Vovniks do not seek out martyrdom; rather, they refuse to abandon the Jewish people in times of trial and persecution.

The narrator of this legendary saga tells us right at the beginning: “A biography of my friend Ernie Levy could easily be set in the second quarter of the twentieth century, but the true history of Ernie Levy begins much earlier, toward the year 1000 of our era in the old Anglican city of York.” In 1135, an army of crusaders surround Rabbi Yom Tov Levy and the Jewish community of York, demanding them to choose baptism or death. Yom Tov Levy chooses death by his own hand, for which God pities him and blesses his line with a Lamed-Vovnik in each of his generations. The Lamed-Vovniks receive the gift of sympathetic soul, enabling them to shoulder the sufferings of others.

The tales of the Levy clan are a prologue to the story of Ernie Levy, a boy growing up in Germany in the 1930s. After Kristallnacht, Ernie escapes with his family to France, which is soon overrun by the Nazis. In the midst of war, Ernie is separated, first from his family, and then from Golda, the woman he loves. Standing at the gates of Drancy, he begs to be admitted to the French concentration camp, to be with Golda and other Jews. In his feverish, delirious dreams in the camp, he cries out to his lost grandparents, parents, and siblings – symbolizing the entire Jewish people: “Should I be the last Jew?” he asks them. “Know that where you are, there am I. If they beat you, am I not in pain? And if you take the little train, am I not aboard?” Forty years have not diminished this novel’s power in depicting the heart of a Jew.

(Reprinted from Reform Judaism Magazine with permission.)

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